The Attack of the Great White Shark: A Trauma Trigger Strikes

As I lay in the dark in bed recently trying to sleep, the fear of death paralyzed me. My stomach was tight, my mind raced with fears: Has pyloric stenosis finally gotten me after all these years?  

The week before, I had been pulling oil, i.e. chewing coconut oil, an ancient prescription for reducing inflammation in the body.  My orthopedist had suggested it to deal with recalcitrant knee pain. One of the potential side effects though was what was called a “short-term crisis.” For me, it caused stomach distress. Gas had built up and as I lay down to sleep, I kept burping and hiccupping. That’s when the terrible teeth of PTS, Post-traumatic Stress, tore at me. I literally felt I was going to die.

Why was I so deeply frightened?  The answer lay in an early experience. As a newborn, I had pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the opening of the stomach into the small intestine. As I couldn’t digest food, I was losing weight. At twenty-six days old, weighing four pounds, I was rushed to the hospital, operated on, and saved. From this emergency, my alarm system became vulnerable. The seeds of PTS, Post-traumatic stress, were planted. 

So at two years old, lying on the examination table at my pediatrician’s office, my fears were re-set into motion when my mother asked the doctor, “Could she suffer again from the same problem at a later time?” He answered, “She shouldn’t. We’ll keep checking, of course. Maybe when she’s fifty.” The word “fifty” burned itself onto my brain. Maybe at fifty. And thus, the great white shark was born–a creature that hid within me, patrolling and terrifying me for almost five decades. 

This shark lay in wait for the opportune time to strike. I wasn’t completely fixed, I thought, so the great white could take advantage of me. This shark lived in my amygdala, the alarm system in the right side of my brain. It made me hypervigilant and prone to panic attacks. I lived in subconscious terror that I could die at any moment. Pyloric stenosis was a killer–a great white shark, hyped for the kill.   

So there I lay in my bed a few weeks ago in the middle of the night, paralyzed with fear, unable to move. Pyloric stenosis was out to get me, I thought. As soon as I heard myself say this, I knew I was caught in Post-traumatic Stress and that perhaps my fears weren’t real. It occurred to me that the hiccups and burps might be relieved by sitting up. And sure enough, the discomfort subsided after I propped myself up on a mound of pillows. Then, the left side of my brain came to the rescue with the real story: I had been in a panic attack. The great white shark had lunged and since it was the middle of the night, my amygdala and its false story had taken over. 

Many people don’t believe adults still suffer from trauma they experienced when infants without words. Babies though have body memory, emotional memory, and sensory (taste, sound, sight, smell, touch) memory. If the memories are traumatic, they can trigger Post-traumatic Stress symptoms, like panic attacks and freeze responses. Fortunately as adults, we can learn to send sharks back to their caves. Children can learn to do this, too. We have the power to relegate fears from early trauma to the past and swim strongly and calmly into the waters of our future. We only need the awareness, the tools, and the confidence to do so. 


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